Late one August, a long time ago, I taped flyers up around town to recruit volunteers to teach English as a Second Language to immigrants in Laval. That’s how I met Chelsea*.
When I think back to that time I can barely remember where I lived. Was that the summer I lived in my first apartment? Was it the summer after I’d had an office job at the religious summer camp? I’m not sure. It was the late nineties. I was nineteen or twenty.
Chelsea was the only person who responded to my hack, hand-scrawled posters. She offered to teach the evening ESL classes with me. She’d just moved to Montreal to go to university. She and I commuted between Montreal and Laval by bus together. The rides were long, but I remember goofing around a lot. We’d divided our students into two groups. I taught the more advanced students, a couple from Iran, and she taught the beginners, a rowdy class full of new Canadians from all over the world. Her group was more fun, but my couple was kind. I think they were both lawyers or had been lawyers in their country. Our educational resources were underwhelming—the whole endeavour was very analogue. Chelsea and I had no training or background in education, and we made things up as we went along. I’m not sure anyone learned anything, but I remember the atmosphere of the classes being festive. We all enjoyed spending time together.
Chelsea was from a Winnipeg suburb. Her mother was an herbalist. I can’t remember what her father did, but her parents were divorced. Chelsea was cool. Way cooler than me. I’d played the piccolo in my high school band and given speeches about history or war at assemblies. She’d been friends with smokers and sex adventurers in high school. She’d kissed girls and boys. She lived in a studio apartment in the McGill ghetto that her father paid for. She burned Nag Champa incense and listened to Oasis and the Verve. She bought her clothes at Urban Outfitters: long knitted scarves, denim overalls. When she got her hair done, she asked for the Geri Halliwell streaks. I was too square for her, but she let me be her friend anyway.
I started my first semester of university that fall. I can recall where I lived now. It was my divey first apartment on the border of Montreal West and Ville Saint-Pierre. I had two roommates. They were both exchange students from Belgium. One was a Buddhist-Wiccan. The other, who studied something to do with water systems, was a recovering anorexic.
From the start, I floundered at school. I couldn’t deal with university. I felt completely overwhelmed. Thinking on it now, I can see the compounding factors. Undiagnosed ADHD, the fact that I’d spent the last two years living in Vancouver with someone else’s family. They’d wanted to adopt me. It hadn’t gone well. I’d dropped out of school, out west. Just a shitty suburban community college, but still. It was around the time I’d been sexually assaulted, though I didn’t see the link at the time. When I told my parents about the assault, after I’d moved back to Montreal, they said they wished I hadn’t told them and changed the subject. So both the shame of the memory and the shame of sharing the memory lingered someplace, unnamed.
It was hard to be back in Montreal. To be back among my family’s problems. To be back but to have lost my sense of self as creative or intelligent. Capable. These new threads of my identity as a failure twisted and took root, and I didn’t feel I knew my own abilities anymore. I couldn’t concentrate. I had crippling anxiety and was too overwhelmed to finish any of my work. I, who had once loved school and excelled with relative—albeit distracted—ease, suddenly felt intensely insecure and entirely incompetent.
Chelsea and I took a women’s studies class together. Some intro class. I couldn’t get my head around it. My first impression was that it was a bunch of privileged people whining about made-up problems. Despite having grown up in a multicultural, educated and artistic but mostly working-poor family, I didn’t know anything about intersectionality. I couldn’t write an essay. I couldn’t form an argument. I couldn’t keep my eyes on my work. I felt I didn’t know anything about anything. My mind drifted. Chelsea would try to help me with my essays, but I was unable to complete them. I’d read and re-read the first paragraph obsessively and never move on. I was mentally blocked. I was in a panic most of the time. I dropped the class. I dropped most of my classes that semester.
But I stayed enrolled in a theatre class. One afternoon, a student interrupted our professor’s lecture. We’d been studying Ibsen’s The Doll House. “The door ooopens, and the door clooooses, and the door ooopens, and the dooooor closes again,” the professor had been saying when the door opened to the student. The unannounced student said they were part of the English literature association and they were starting an undergraduate literary magazine—would anyone in the class be interested in joining? I signed up.
About six people showed up to the first meeting. I think it was on the Loyola campus, in a cafeteria that had maybe been a former chapel. But it’s also possible we met downtown, in a small room in the Library Building. Everyone was supposed to have brainstormed ideas for an anthology title. My top two suggestions were “Ampersand” and “Soliloquies.” Ampersand, because the internet was still new in the late nineties, and because ampersands were novel words to drop in conversation. Soliloquies because I’d had an Oh-Captain-My-Captain high school English teacher who’d taught us to love Shakespeare. At nineteen, or twenty, I thought people would consider their creative work to be important solo orations. It was dreamy and fancy-seeming and official-sounding and eventually, everyone on the team settled on the name too, and we called Concordia’s first undergrad anthology Soliloquies.
No one knows I was on this committee, or that I had any responsibility for this unfortunate, earnest naming incident because of what happened afterwards.
There was this guy on the Soliloquies committee. I can’t remember his name. I think of him as Eugène, but I don’t think that was actually his name. Here are the details I remember: he was tall. There was something about his skin that seemed dry from within. Like the way skin looks on bodybuilders, tight, thin, stained an unnatural, chemical colour. His skin had a sallow colour to it. Tobacco-stained, jaundiced, sick. He had big hands. He was a smoker. I think he was older than me. He was half-French, half-English, like me, except he spoke English with a bit of an accent, so he must have been educated in French.
He asked me out, one night, after one of our meetings. Or maybe he called me to ask me out, I can’t remember.
It was my first actual date. The two people I’d gone out with before I’d known socially for a long time, and the relationships had just sort of progressed on their own. I thought I should give it a whirl. I was playing at being a grown-up.
He wore a sheepskin coat, and he wore it open despite the minus-20 degree weather of that winter. I found the sheepskin showy and I was embarrassed to be out with someone wearing something so ostentatious.
We went to a whiskey bar on Ontario Street. He had a lot of whiskey. I can’t remember how many glassfuls. Four, five, six.
I stopped drinking early on and then he drank the drinks he ordered me. I remember a golden hue to the room. Brick walls. People playing djembes somewhere by the back. I feel like Eugène left the bar to smoke but I’m not sure that’s true since in the nineties people still smoked in bars. But I remember him leaving for short bursts of time and then returning. I remember because I considered sneaking out in those moments. Maybe he was going to the bathroom.
I can’t remember if we kissed in the bar. Maybe something small, like a tiny unfeeling peck. Yes, there was a kiss like that. His whole body emanated cigarette stink like a taxi. His lips puckered. I didn’t feel anything. I was uncomfortable and wanted to leave. He said stuff about me owing him, since he’d been paying for the drinks with his tree-planting cash. He said we were going home together. I knew I couldn’t. We left the bar. We walked up Saint-Denis to Sherbrooke. I was stalling, talking about night buses. He kept saying I owed him. I couldn’t believe someone was speaking those words to me, classic abusive lines out of some TV don’t-let-this-happen-to-you movie.
I was evasive and not committing to leaving, and trying to figure out how to get back to my place safely—I lived in the living room of my apartment, the one I shared with the two roommates in Montreal West. I worked very part-time in a coffee shop, and I was so broke I only owned one pair of pants—brown corduroys that were fraying where my backpack rubbed on the small of my back. I was worried that if I got a cab, he’d try to climb in with me. I was certain that he would. The next night bus was a long wait away. It was really cold outside. I stalled.
And then he hit me. In the face. Twice. Despite the late hour, and the temperature, there were a lot of people out, and they watched me take the hits and fall on the sidewalk. I thought, embarrassed, a phrase that now embarrasses me to remember: They think I’m an abused housewife. And something truer: Cowards. No one intervened or slowed their pace. They stared as they walked by. A domestic matter. My fault. My business. We were by a gas station. There was a pay phone. I told Eugène I had to call my friend Chelsea, that she was really upset about her family. He said something like, “Right now? In the middle of the night?” And I said something like, “Yes, for sure, I check in on her every night because she’s going through a tough time.” The payphone was in the halo of gas station light.
I didn’t have a quarter. I only had a loonie. I hated wasting bus fare, but I pushed the buck down the coin slot anyway. I dialled Chelsea’s number, my hand shaking. She picked up. I made my voice cheerful. I asked, “Are you feeling okay? You’re not too sad?” She was groggy and confused and annoyed that I was calling her to ask her inane questions at two in the morning. I kept telling her how I was out, and right by her house, and I was worried about her. Eugène loomed behind me in the telephone cabin. Icy snowflakes fell. The crystalline sound of snow snowing on snow. Movie snow. The parking lot an illuminated oasis. I said, “It’s okay if you need me to come over if you’re not feeling okay.” She got it. She told me to come over right now.
I told Eugène I had to see my friend. I told him I could find my way on my own, it was just a few blocks over, but he insisted he would walk me there and threatened to follow me inside her apartment. I said it would upset my friend too much so he couldn’t.
My friend met me at the door to her building in her pyjamas and slippers. We ran up the stairs to her apartment and I cried. We slept tête bêche, head to foot, in her single futon. In the morning, on our way out for breakfast, we saw Eugène had pissed all over her porch. A wavy yellow design in the sugary-hard snow.
I dropped out of the anthology group. Gradually. First, I avoided going to meetings. They told me I was irresponsible. They couldn’t rely on me. Then I heard Eugène had been reading poems about me at open mics. Someone on the editorial team told me I’d seemed like a nice person, but Eugène had told her things about me and now I wasn’t trustworthy and she wasn’t sure whose side to take. So I stopped working on the anthology.
After a while I quit school, again. It wasn’t necessarily related.
It took me a long time to go back to school and finish my BA. I worked for a couple of years before going back. As a nanny, in advertising, at yet another coffee shop. I applied to study creative writing at Concordia and got in, and slowly, one good grade after another, built my sense of myself back up. I paid my way, one semester at a time, while living with partners or roommates, working part-time in fancy stores, and as a freelance translator and editor. I enjoyed my undergraduate degree because of the choice it was. It felt like a present I was giving myself.
While I was studying creative writing, many of my younger friends submitted to Soliloquies, were published, became editors there. They would make fun of the anthology’s name. And it would make me feel a bit queasy, but also a little proud. Sometimes I would tell them I had been the person to name it, and we’d laugh about the name being awkwardly, aspirationally lofty. And then they’d tell me there was no record of my having been there at all.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.